In recent years, Neufeld has been a tireless advocate for the literature and authors, past and present, throughout the southern mountains. An “About the Author” note states that he grew up in “Northern Appalachia (Rockland County, N.Y.) and moved to Southern Appalachia (Asheville) in 1988.” Aside from his own writing, he is perhaps best known for his work as director of Together We Read, Western North Carolina’s 21-county community program.
Neufeld advises the reader in a preface that, “My special interest has been to convey broad themes through very particular, personal stories.” The description on the back cover accurately summarizes the text: “Instead of merely reciting historical fact, Neufeld helps readers understand the history of the mountains by allowing us to ‘walk in the shoes’ of the Native Americans, farmers, soldiers and others who preceded us. More than an enlightening read, this book illuminates the progression of frontier life that we have come to know as Western North Carolina history. By linking the lives and experiences of the land’s various inhabitants, Neufeld captures the spirit of Appalachia within this volume.”
The collection is divided into five sections: The Cherokee; Pioneers and Farmers; The Civil War; Legendary Women; and Tales of Adversity and Triumph. In the first section, I was particularly interested in the opening essay titled “Putting a Human Face on Our region’s Ancient Settlers.” Therein, Neufeld interweaves archaeological, historical, and anecdotal materials so as to paint a more lifelike portrait of the region’s first citizens than is normally the instance.
“For 1,500 years before the arrival of Europeans, the Cherokees lived what might be considered a middle-class life,” he writes. “The typical neighborhood grouped several homes around a plaza and was in easy distance of a local ceremonial and trade center. Society comprised well-developed economic and occupational classes.”
From that vantage point, he evokes an orderly and no doubt immensely satisfying lifestyle that incorporated stamped pots, storage pits, fireplace hearths, clay pits, kilns, family graves. “Some hopes,” he adds, “even had cellars.”
The headings used for some of the essays included in the Pioneers and Settlers section are indicative of the content: “A Bed Warmer Provides the Link to an 1830s Winter,” “ A Washboard Tells a Story,” “German Settlers,” and “Hand-forged Nails and God in Cornfields.”
The Civil War section opens with an overview titled “How Unionist Were Mountain People” and proceeds from there to consider specific topics and events like “A Henderson County Perspective,” “The Civil war Is Waged in Print,” “The Cold Mountain Spotlight,” “The Shelton Laurel Massacre,” and more.
The section devoted to Legendary Women is one of my favorites because it introduced me to various delightful women I’d never before encountered: Lillian Exum Clement, this region’s (and perhaps the South’s) first female legislator; “The Girls of Candler,” the 1925 championship girls’ basketball team from Candler High School; “The Trainmen’s Wives,” who were the spouses of the various African American flagmen and conductors for the Southern Railroad; and more.
The concluding section, Tales of Adversity and Triumph brings us even more fully into the modern era via essays focused on L.B. Jackson (architect for “the first skyscraper in Western North Carolina—the Jackson Building”); Asheville’s Jewish pioneers; “Nina Simone, Tryon Jazz Singer”; integration issues; and more.
The overview I have provided here doesn’t do justice to the full content and interconnected themes of A Popular History of Western North Carolina: Mountains, Heroes, and Hootnoggers. Let me state my view as clearly as I can. I think that this is an important book, a substantive literary contribution to the region’s history that will remain so for years to come.
Oh — and by the way — among the many things I learned for the first time in this book is that a “hootnogger” was in Germanic folklore a helpful spirit who would warn woodsmen about falling trees and other dangers.